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Neil Messer

Neil Messer completed his PhD in molecular biology in Cambridge before a call to ordained ministry in the United Reformed Church led him to study theology in Cambridge and at King’s College London. He served as a church minister before moving into theological teaching and research at Mansfield College, Oxford, the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham and the University of Wales, Lampeter. He went to The University of Winchester in 2009 and was made Professor of Theology in 2011. He was Head of Department from 2009 to Aug. 2015.

What should Christian theology (not) learn from science? The case of the human brain

Birmingham 2016

This paper will use the neuroscience of religion and morality as a test case of the limits of science in its encounters with theology and ethics. Recent scientific developments, particularly in functional brain imaging, seem to promise new insights into many aspects of human nature, including religion and morality. Neuroscientific studies of religion, alongside evolutionary and cognitive science accounts, are often deployed to support religious scepticism – but conversely, sometimes used apologetically by religious believers. Functional neuroimaging studies of moral judgement suggest that our moral decisions are far less the products of reasoned deliberation than we sometimes imagine, and some authors have tried to build normative proposals about ethical reasoning on the back of these empirical studies. Such research may appear to have far-reaching implications and raise troubling questions for Christian theology and ethics. Yet some of the bold claims made for it rest on confusion about the kinds of intellectual work science is capable of doing. Accordingly, this field offers a valuable test case of the contributions science can and cannot make to the understanding of theology and ethics – and therefore also the opportunities and pitfalls for Christian theologians who attempt to engage with science. The paper will develop this test case in three stages. First, evolutionary, cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion, and the questions they raise for Christian theology, will be briefly surveyed. Next, various types of theological engagement with science will be sketched out, and their merits and problems evaluated with reference to these scientific accounts of religion. Some methodological conclusions will be drawn from this evaluation, and in the final part of the paper they will be illustrated by a theological reflection on neuroscientific studies of morality.